"Swordfish: Style Over Substance"
By Teddy Durgin
Watching the summer box office is a lot like keeping track of the
stock market. Already in this up-and-down summer, "Shrek" has
cornered the market on humor and family fun. "Pearl Harbor" has
a monopoly on explosions and aerial dogfights. And, let's not
forget "The Mummy Returns," which bought digital effects low and
is still selling out theaters high.
Now, we have "Swordfish" (opening this Friday, June 8), a new
action thriller from "Gone in 60 Seconds" director Dominic Sena.
This movie is going for a power play on one commodity and one
commodity only. Cool.
"Swordfish" is just too damn cool. How cool? It's got John
Travolta, finally returning to form as a ruthless government
operative carrying out a secret coup. It's got Hugh Jackman as
one of the world's top computer hackers, hired by Travolta as
part of his ambitious scheme. Jackman sports the same
three-day-old beard growth, well-combed chest hair, and steely
Eastwood glint that made the hearts of geeks and ladies alike
flutter in last summer's "X-Men." "Swordfish" also has Halle
Berry as Travolta's temptress partner, who has one of the great
topless scenes in movie history (Hey, I'm just reporting what I
saw ... don't write letters). And it has Don Cheadle as a
tough-as-nails FBI agent out to bring 'em all down.
Not cool enough for ya? Forget all that. Here is why you should
go see this film. It has the best opening 10 minutes of any
movie, anywhere, this year. It starts with Travolta's
charismatic Gabriel, giving a long monologue about how "Hollywood
is crap." It's a gutsy way to open a picture. Travolta is
almost writing some critics' bad reviews of the film right in the
opening minutes. Gabriel goes on to riff about "Dog Day
Afternoon," the classic '70s hostage drama starring Al Pacino.
He laments about how it would be made today and how bad it would
suck. We don't know who he is talking to for quite some time.
It's just the camera and Travolta, and it's electric.
Then, Gabriel gets up to leave, revealing that he is in a coffee
shop in L.A. The tables have been overturned. The place is in
disarray. Jackman's Stanley Jobson is with him. He looks
absolutely terrified. We see why. They are surrounded by at
least a hundred FBI agents and law enforcement officials. They
march out into a downtown intersection toward a bank where
Gabriel has wired a dozen or so of his own hostages with
explosives. Helicopters fly over head. Snipers on rooftops
stand ready. The Feds have every machine gun known to mankind
pointed at the two men, but they allow Gabriel and Stanley to
walk freely back to their terrified prisoners.
Moments later, something incredible happens. I ain't gonna say
what. I will just say that it is one of the most viscerally
exciting moments I've ever witnessed in a movie theater.
Remember the first time you saw Keanu Reeves dodge bullets in
"The Matrix?" Remember the camera panning around him at 360
degrees as the gunfire whizzed by? That special effect was
called "Bullet Time." The bar has been raised, my friends.
Think Bullet Time, times 20, and that is what the beginning of
The first 10 minutes of this movie are so amazing, so
balls-to-the-wall cool, that the rest of the film can't help but
feel ... I don't know, normal by comparison. Some really cool
stuff happens. There are at least three more virtuoso action
sequences (and the topless scene) that will likely elicit
applause from opening-weekend crowds. But together, they all
can't equal the movie's fantastic start.
Fortunately, the acting is top-notch and carries the audience
through. Travolta and Jackman, in particular, have a wonderful
chemistry together. Gabriel wants Stanley, a penniless ex-con
previously busted by Cheadle for hacking into the FBI's
computers, to hack into a government mainframe and steal billions
of illegal government funds that have been drawing interest since
the days of J. Edgar Hoover. Gabriel uses everything from sex
(you won't believe the interview that he puts together for
Stanley!) to money to cajole the former thief back into the world
of high-tech crime. Stanley, meanwhile, wants only to be able to
win back custody of his young daughter (Camryn Grimes). A $10
million payday, courtesy of Gabriel, would go a long way toward
hiring the best lawyers to handle his case.
"Swordfish" (the title refers to a government operation code
name) is all about showing viewers scenes they've seen before
dozens of times, then throwing in a different twist. The film
knocked me for a loop several times. Other setpieces include an
interrogation scene that ends in gunfire, a car chase that
concludes with Travolta pulling out one of the biggest friggin'
hand cannons ever, and a slow-speed bus chase that turns into an
aerial pursuit (don't ask, just see it).
Sometimes, this big action is too ridiculous to take. At one
point, Cheadle and his FBI cohorts chase Jackman through an L.A.
neighborhood and down a steep, dusty canon, falling head over
heels after one another. When they get down to the bottom of the
canyon, no one is even remotely hurt (let alone killed). Heck,
they're barely out of breath. Even more preposterous, no one has
a single speck of dirt on their fancy clothes! Where can I get
threads like these?! I put on a sports jacket and slacks, bend
down to pet the cat, and I'm ruined for the night! It's Scotch
tape and kitty fur for at least two hours.
Do you know how long it's been since I've been able to wear my
navy-blue pinstripe? To say nothing of black.
Also absurd is ultimately how much the Travolta character has to
predict the final events of the movie falling into place before
they actually do. Gabriel is all about slight-of-hand and
misdirection. But to pull off a clever trick near the end, he
has to correctly predict that Stanley will 1) be with him; and 2)
be in a state of mind to do something ... well, quite stunning.
It's the same problem I had with the Tim Robbins character in
"Arlington Road" two summers ago. The only difference is,
"Arlington Road" took its subject matter way too seriously.
"Swordfish" knows that it's absurd and gleefully skirts the
razor's edge between hard action and parody. Sometimes it gets
cut on that edge, but never too deep.
"Swordfish" is far from perfect. But when it's good, it's really
good. What's the password? The password is cool!
"Swordfish" is rated R for violence, language, sexuality, and
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